- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 14, 2009

For a franchise with the pedigree and payroll of the New York Yankees, rebuilding is supposed to be a foreign concept. Panic is purported to happen to other teams, and failure - well, that revolting possibility is supposed to be eliminated with a roster that doubles as an insurance policy against such things.

Yet in the past five years, the Yankees experienced those things more than any other time since they recaptured their perch as baseball’s dominant franchise in the mid-1990s.

It started with that epic four-game collapse against the Boston Red Sox in the 2004 American League Championship Series, which catapulted the Red Sox to their first title in 86 years. It kicked off a stretch that, by the Yankees’ standards, has to be classified as a downward spiral.

Since then, heathen franchises like the Cleveland Indians, Detroit Tigers and - horrors! - Tampa Bay Rays have reached the ALCS. New York has not. Last season, the Yankees missed the playoffs for the first time since 1993. Even worse, Boston claimed another World Series title in 2007.

The result? This Yankees team, which reached the ALCS with a sweep of the Minnesota Twins and hosts the Los Angeles Angels in Friday’s Game 1, looks almost nothing like the one that lost to the Red Sox in 2004. Just five players are left from that team. Manager Joe Girardi, who replaced Joe Torre before last season, needed a 103-win season just to prove to skeptics he was capable of succeeding in New York. And at the behest of the Steinbrenner family, general manager Brian Cashman ditched a short-lived plan to win with homegrown players, embarking on a $423.5 million shopping spree last winter.

This Yankees team might not just be the best since they last won the World Series in 2000, it also appears to be set up for long-term success.

“It’s a lot of hard work, a lot of good things we have done this series,” catcher Jorge Posada said Sunday after the Yankees finished off the Twins.

Pitchers CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett and first baseman Mark Teixeira - the prizes of last year’s free agent haul - are 29, 32 and 29. The presence of two starters in their prime is a major difference from the 2005-08 Yankees, who tried to overtake the Red Sox with aging veterans like Randy Johnson and Kevin Brown.

Robinson Cano, an emerging star at second base, turns 27 this month. The remade bullpen features young pitchers Phil Hughes, Phil Coke and David Robertson. And even with their offseason additions, the Yankees’ payroll is down from what it was last year, making a run at outfielder Matt Holliday a possibility this winter.

Pitching was the key to the Yankees’ first-round win; they held the Twins, who had won 17 of 21, to six runs in three games.

Yet the improved rotation is not the most dangerous alteration. That would be the emergence of Alex Rodriguez, long reviled in New York for his playoff failures, as a clutch performer. He homered twice in the ALDS, tying Game 2 in the ninth inning and Game 3 in the sixth, and drove in six runs.

If he continues to hit like that, a deep lineup becomes almost impossible to shut down.

“I think that’s a message that we have for all our teammates - we have four or five guys in our clubhouse who have been there and done that and have played extremely well in October,” Rodriguez said. “All of us can follow those guys, especially Derek [Jeter]. He is our captain and our leader, and he had a fantastic series. We can learn from them.”

Rodriguez was careful not to put himself in the group that has proved it can handle October. But he made it clear how important it was to put the postseason struggles behind him.

He was injured the first month of the season and admitted a week before spring training that he had used steroids from 2001 to 2003 with the Texas Rangers. The only thing the three-time league MVP could do to reduce the scrutiny was to perform in the playoffs, and he has so far.

“I knew I couldn’t change that, so, you know, I am content right now, both on and off the field,” he said.

The ultimate measure of vindication for Rodriguez and the Yankees would have been to beat the Red Sox in the ALCS. Instead, they’ll have to settle for a series with the Angels, who ousted them in 2005 to begin the four-year run without a trip to the league championship series.

But whomever the chance comes against, there’s plenty of motivation for the Yankees to earn something else they’re not used to chasing: vindication.

“We want to win a World Series, and obviously we took a step here to move on,” left-hander Andy Pettitte said. “We are going to have a nasty series. It’s going to be a war with us and the Angels, but we are looking forward to it.”

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